The current geological age is defined by man-made climate and environmental change. The anthropocene crowns centuries of human activity and represents the intersecting of economic development and the biosphere.

Yet, ‘anthropocene’ is more than just a geological term. It lies at the intersection of science and politics, holding the universalist promise of science while falling prey to political recuperation.

Anthropocene: from science to politics

What is most interesting behind the notion of ‘anthropocene’, from a philosophical point of view, is the reversal of the relation between man and his environment. Whereas in prior geological eras man had been subject to climate – dictating the output of crops, for instance – the causality is now reversed.

To be sure, man still suffers the same hazards dealt by his environment: agricultural output as well as natural disasters and rising water levels are but some of the most obvious risks. However, in the anthropocene, the violence of man’s environment will be inversely proportional to his resolve to adopt a sustainable mode of existence.

By instituting the primacy of man in the causes of climate change, the concept of the anthropocene also places him at the center of the search for a solution and reintroduces agency in the battle against environmental degradation. In so doing, the term exits the scientific field that bore it and enters the political arena.
smoke stacks

The Greening of the Political Spectrum

With the entrance of anthropocene in the political sphere, all political strands have recuperated the notion and incorporated it into long-standing myths and narratives particular to each.

1. Green Capitalism: A New New Deal

Green Capitalism offers a wholly techno-centric approach to solving the issue of sustainability. As such it remains deeply conservative, clinging to the paradigms of the current neo-liberal order: technological improvements can solve climate change while preserving a socio-economic status quo.

In effect, a transition to greener energy sources would save the environment whilst also providing a new engine of capitalist growth: consumption would increase to update old, ecologically unsound equipment and jobs would be created to support this green transition. Moreover, by increasing awareness among individual consumers they would become more likely to reward green businesses on the market – thus accelerating the pace of change.

For the green strand of neo-liberalism, the ecological shift is an opportunity to reapply Keynesian economics: massive investment would boost buying power and kick-start a new cycle of economic boom. Only this time, state and private actors would cooperate in footing the bill.


2. Green Socialism: A New Era for Humanity

The Green narrative aligns particularly well with the Marxist vision of “it’s always darkest before dawn” and “things must get worse before they get better.” According to this dogma, the present crisis is a symptom of capitalist excess: the endless cycle of production and accumulation has reached the limits of what the globe’s resources can support.

Green transition, therefore, implies a shift in the mode of production towards collaborative and local forms of ownership. This empowering of the community in the green revolution will mark the Anthropocene as a new era in the potential of humanity: rather than a era of mass extinction it will stand as an era of unprecedented emancipation for humanity.

In Green socialism as in previous forms of socialism, one finds two schools of thought: an evolutionary strand advocating a transition operated within the present institutional framework and a revolutionary approach for which significant gains can only be obtained through toppling the established order.

eco building

3. Green Anarchism: Back to the Roots

In essence, Green Socialism retains a productivist ethos in common with Green Capitalism. Green Anarchism, however, retains the emphasis on liberating the individual and empowering local communities expressed by Green Socialism while abandoning its hopes to build a responsible mode of production.

Over-use of fossil fuels is only an aggravating factor in climate change; the productivist drive is the true cause of the crisis. As such, the “return to nature” narrative which has been deployed as an argument to regenerate the individual and rebuild community ties is compounded with the degrowth narrative as a solution to emerge from the present climate crisis.

If the return to nature was only presented as a way to repair the damaged individual, it is now also portrayed as the only way to fix a derailed environment. Reinforcing the perceived mutual-dependence between man and nature: the green anarchists’ future is a return to local, organic modes of production to counter both the diseased social body and the failing biosphere.

nick olson house

A Rebirth of Universalism

The age-old sophism: “global problem, global solution,” is shared by all strands of Green and at all levels, from world leaders at the Paris Climate Conference (2015) to grass-roots activists.

For all of the differences that may separate them, all streams of thought are in accord: everyone must apply the same strategy in order to maximize the chances of obtaining a positive outcome. Though not directly named as universalist, all models call on the creation of a minimal set of globally shared values.

Universalism, after a long hiatus during the 20th Century, is returning to the forefront of political discourse – aided in no small part by science. By coining the term anthropocene to describe the current changes undergone by the climate, scientists have re-instituted the imperative to define a sustainable mode of existence – and one that must necessarily be trans-national in its application.

melting polar caps

An Ideological Resizing

Void of any prescriptive ambition, the concept of the anthropocene finds itself molded to the different narratives of pre-existing models and adapted to their ancient visions of the ideal future. Whether it’s made to serve the myth of a virtuous cycle of growth, the dream of a socialist revolution or the delusion of a possible return to a romanticized golden age, the anthropocene has brought urgency back to outdated visions of the future.

Interestingly, the term has therefore been absorbed by existing political systems. One is not just “Green” but Green combined to a pre-existing theoretical framework. Recuperated by political groups of all convictions, the term anthropocene which spelled dystopia in its scientific meaning is being filled with these ideologies’ competing notions of utopia.